April 18, 2024

Made in China Wargaming?

RockyMountainNavy, 20 October 2021

Learning in a wargame laboratory – a report from the Institute for the Study of War

Thanks to a lead from Rex Brynen and his PAXSIMS site, we can now read a study by Elsa Kania and Ian Burns McCaslin from The Institute for the Study of War entitled Learning Warfare from the Laboratory: China’s Progression in Wargaming and Opposing Force Training (September 2021):

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is faced with the challenge of preparing for future warfare during peacetime as a force that lacks contemporary operational experience. Among the methods through which the PLA seeks to enhance its combat readiness are sophisticated wargaming and realistic, force-on-force exercises. Chinese military leaders regard wargaming (bingqi tuiyan, 兵棋推演) as an important technique by which to “learn warfare from the laboratory” for training purposes and to promote insights on the dynamics of future combat. This style of learning is complemented by the PLA’s study of military history and emulation of the experiences and innovations of foreign militaries, including through creating “blue forces” that simulate potential adversaries against which to train. Beyond improving its current capabilities and readiness, the PLA also aspires to achieve an edge in military competition, seeking to “design” the dynamics of and develop capabilities for future warfare.

Learning Warfare from the Laboratory, p. 8

While focused on readers in the national security establishment, Learning Warfare from the Laboratory may also be of interest to both professional and hobby wargamers as they look to “game” China on the tabletop. Not that the study teaches anything about how the Chinese military fights, but it does explain how the PLA uses wargames to build their understanding of the battle environment. As I read the study, I thought about comparisons to both professional and commercial wargaming in the U.S..

Pages-from-Learning-Warfare-from-the-Laboratory-ISW-September-2021-Report-Cover 2
ISW Study

Learning from the Laboratory looks at wargaming in the PLA in five ways. Hobby wargamers will be able to relate to some more than others. The five sections of the study are:

  • Wargaming in Military Learning
  • Historical Evolution of PLA Wargaming
  • Wargaming Competitions and National Defense Education
  • AI in PLA Wargaming Initiatives
  • Live Wargames for “Actual Combat” Training

I’m going to focus my thoughts on the first four sections of Learning from the Laboratory as the last one, “Actual Combat” training, is more the arena of Command Post and Field Training exercises for military forces vice tabletop wargaming. Wargame LARPer’s like Jim “Napoleon” Owczarski (@TheGascon on Twitter) may disagree but that’s the way I work…


Wargaming in Military Learning

Kania and McCaslin point out in Learning from the Laboratory that approaches to wargaming and learning in the PLA emulates foreign militaries (especially the U.S.) in some ways, but with a greater focus on computers…and politics:

PLA wargaming and development of their blue forces continue to be significantly influenced by emulation of the approaches of foreign militaries, particularly those of the US military. The combination of domestic and foreign influences has resulted in features unique to the PLA, reflecting distinct priorities, interests, and constraints. In wargaming, for example, the PLA appears to prefer and prioritize computerized approaches over other forms, and it has attempted to leverage this cost-effective technique in training to address certain long-standing weaknesses, such as in command decision-making. To that end, the PLA has scaled up wargaming in professional military education (PME), especially through programming at the PLA’s National Defense University (NDU). The history and political character of the PLA as the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also appear to be a notable influence, demonstrated by the experimentation with political warfare in PLA wargaming.

Learning from the Laboratory, p. 8

Learning from the Laboratory also tells us that bureaucracies are the same worldwide and the known difficulties in the relationship between wargaming and the military does not just apply to the U.S.. “Within the PLA, learning has at times been impeded by bureaucratic boundaries and fragmentation that prevented lessons learned from flowing smoothly across services and even between units” (p. 9). This is a perennial complaint heard at almost any CONNECTIONS wargaming conference. 

As similar as the bureaucratic challenges might be, Learning from the Laboratory shows us there are differences as simple as basic terminology. Spoiler Alert: If you were looking to finally answer the question “What is a wargame” the PLA offers yet another definition for your consideration:

Despite American and Chinese wargaming and exercises sharing many core concepts, the PLA has its own terminology, elements of which are different from those of the United States and much of the rest of the international military community. In China’s wargaming community, (bingqi, 兵棋) or literally “war chess,” is the typical phrasing, and (bingqi tuiyan, 兵棋推演) captures the practice of wargaming, which can be rendered literally as “war chess deductions.” The PLA has concentrated on computerized wargaming (jisuanji bingqi, 计算机兵棋), and characterizes its efforts in wargaming, including at the campaign and strategic levels, as “wargaming confrontation” (bingqi duikang, 兵棋对抗). At times, the PLA has also described wargames as “confrontation exercises” (duikang yanxi, 对抗演习), which highlights a degree of fluidity between wargames and force-on-force exercises in the PLA.

Learning from the Laboratory, p. 13

As much as the PLA wants to emulate foreign militaries, Learning from the Laboratory shows that they are clearly setting their own path at the fundamental level. Personally, I like the phrase “war chess deductions” to describe wargaming; it’s a nice concise phrase that many U.S. professional wargamers should consider for the phrase puts the focus squarely on the learning that wargames deliver. 



Historical Evolution of PLA Wargaming

While wargaming in Europe and the United States has a long and storied history, I found it surprising that Learning from the Laboratory conveys little-to-no historical Chinese-legacy wargaming of note. For a country that birthed Sun Tzu this seems to be a glaring omission by Kania and McCaslin. Or is it? Maybe they, like the rest of us, lack access to the right primary sources.

Be that as it may, Learning from the Laboratory focuses on PLA wargaming post 1949. “At this time, the PLA was relatively backward by most standards and continued to rely on aid and training from the Soviet Union to progress. However, as the PLA started to professionalize, wargaming began to be used often for educational, training, and planning purposes” (p. 15). It is also notable that American wargamers (military?) also apparently had an influence on the birth of PLA wargaming:

This reintroduction of wargaming came from Chinese experts who had been trained by Soviet or American specialists. Wargaming was quickly put to use by the PLA only a year later in the Korean War. Soviet-trained PLA officers employed wargames to plan the initial successful deployment of the PLA, then fighting under the dubious but deniable moniker of the “Chinese People’s Volunteers,” in Korea. Wargaming would also apparently play a role in at least some of the successful Chinese engagements that would follow.

Learning from the Laboratory, p. 15

Learning from the Laboratory points out that access to commercial computer wargames probably helped the PLA in significant ways. ““Ironically, … [wargames published for the US civilian market] had user interfaces far superior to those of the military games China was not permitted to buy” from the US military” (p. 16). This was after the chill in relations following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. The PLA attributed the U.S. military success in the Gulf War in great part to wargaming (p. 16), adding further incentive to build their own capability.1 That said, it appears the PLA as an institution is often just as skeptical of their wargames as the U.S. establishment is. “Leaders don’t trust it, officers aren’t familiar with it, and units don’t wish to use it” (p. 17). 

Learning from the Laboratory also points out how PLA wargames differ from the rest of the world:

Advancing technological capabilities have created options for the PLA to develop and leverage a relatively holistic approach to wargaming. The PLA has started to work toward incorporating a wide range of factors and elements of national power that can impact the outcome of a conflict scenario. For years, the PLA has been incorporating non-military factors such as media and political, economic, and diplomatic concerns in wargames using the NDU’s system. While the PLA has been incorporating “virtual news” into its wargaming, their training has also apparently incorporated media events and media actors.

Learning from the Laboratory, p. 18

In some ways this change discussed in Learning from the Laboratory is reflected in U.S. commercial hobby wargaming. Take for instance the rise of card-driven games (CDGs) with event cards that go beyond battlefield conditions. Many a “wargame” like Twilight Struggle are more political than military. One could argue that the entire GMT Games COIN series or almost any Brian Train-designed wargame is as much as—if not more—a political contest than actual kinetic combat.

There are also more direct connections. Learning from the Laboratory points out that the U.S. commercial computer wargame, Command: Modern Air Naval Operations (CMANO) from Matrix Games is an inspiration for the PLA (p. 19). CMANO draws much of its inspiration from the Harpoon-series from Admiralty Trilogy Group 2. Although not widely discussed, Academy Games supports defense wargaming; I heard Uwe Eickert once say that Agents of Mayhem: Pride of Babylon was based on a Battle of Fallujah game they designed for a government customer. I wonder what other commercial wargames, computer or not, serve as direct (or even indirect) inspiration to the PLA?



Wargaming Competitions and National Defense Education

In keeping with their focus on computers, Learning from the Laboratory tells how commercialized computer wargaming and PLA wargaming are related:

Meanwhile, wargaming has become prominent and popularized across China, and the PLA has leveraged the commercialization of wargaming to improve its quality and realism. Ongoing advances in video games and innovations from the video game industry continue to provide China’s armed forces with new options for realistic, engaging wargames.

Learning from the Laboratory, p. 8 

I wonder how similar this commercial popularity reported in Learning from the Laboratory is as compared to the World of Tanks / World of Warships computer wargames here in the States. That thought leads directly to the other aspect of the commercial-PLA wargaming relationship—competitions:

Beyond PME efforts, wargaming competitions have become an important element of national defense education, as thousands of military and civilian students across universities nationwide participate in annual wargaming competitions. This national initiative encourages patriotism and interest in military affairs among the public while fostering greater unity and understanding between military and civilian stakeholders.

Learning from the Laboratory, p. 8

Here I will say I am envious because these Learning from the Laboratory wargaming competitions are far more than a local, even national X-Wing tournament. The major difference, as I see it, is that so many of the U.S. tournaments are really nothing more than “army point building optimization” excursions. There is no effort to use these public events to teach or learn more about the military and their capabilities—they are for the most part personal vanity exercises.

[As you can probably tell I am VERY sour on the tournament scene. Maybe it has to do with one bad experience where we went into a local shop for an X-Wing night of fun, but instead found more than a few hyper-competitive @ssh0!es who talked down to my boys for not building a max’ed out force but just wanting to play for fun. I am never happy to see a local business close, but in this case I made an exception. I’m guessing the CCP enforces fun on the masses and this never happens over there…]

Some U.S. and British institutions like the Krulak Center at Quantico or Fight Club in the U.K. are trying to approximate the PLA Learning from the Laboratory approach to wargame competitions, but it is far from widespread acceptance. Wouldn’t it be nice to see more of this in the U.S.? Personally, I applaud the efforts of Sebastian Bae and the Georgetown University Wargaming Society (GUWS) though I recognize it pales in comparison to the PLA effort.

Some of you might say that a Learning from the Laboratory commercial-military convergence in wargaming outside of China is already happening with World of Tanks and its sister games. I’ll just say that some of the “other” activities related to Wargaming LLC are of concern to some and it might not be in the best interest of the U.S. government to get too involved.


AI in PLA Wargaming Initiatives

Much like the U.S., integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) and wargaming in the PLA still has a tough road ahead:

Despite such attention to and enthusiasm for AI, there is a great distance between a gameboard and the actual battlefield. Even the most complex and detailed battlefield simulations pale in comparison to the complexity of fog and friction that arise on an actual battlefield. However, the tactics, stratagems, and challenges of decision making that can arise in a game such as Go or a wargame are relatively analogous to those that might be used on the battlefield. Major General Hu Xiaofeng, along with other PLA researchers, was quick to explore the potential for integrating AI into China’s computerized wargames and military simulations to enhance their level of realism, including through the creation of simulated hostile forces that are artificially intelligent enough to provide rigorous challenges

Learning from the Laboratory, p. 23

While one might think that a tabletop wargame can’t have an AI, you should think again. In the U.S. commerical wargaming hobby there are already elementary AI’s available. From the various Bots in many GMT Games (which are, admittedly, not an AI but a very good logic tree) to the Athena AI (a card-based version of a videogame AI) in Academy Games’ Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear, AI in tabletop wargames exists. Even hobby boardgames have their own forms of AI like the Automa System in Scythe from Stonemaier Games. With the movement to more digital wargaming because of COVID, it will be interesting to see how “smart opponents” get integrated into future games.


Wargames and Insight

Kania and McCalsin sum up Learning from the Laboratory with a focus on insights from wargaming. “The PLA seeks to continue learning without fighting under peacetime conditions, and its use of wargaming as a laboratory for learning and the introduction of simulated adversaries in exercises provide critical insights” (p. 29). This is most assuredly the same goal as almost any military that uses wargaming across the globe. At the same time, there are risks:

However, these initiatives are unlikely to capture the full complexities of modern warfare and may risk providing a distorted understanding or unrealistic expectations. Moreover, despite some apparent advances, the PLA’s ability to incorporate and institutionalize lessons learned from these activities is difficult to accurately assess.

Learning from the Laboratory, p. 29

The commercial hobby wargame industry faces many of the same issues highlighted in Learning from the Laboratory. I have yet to find a wargame the captures, “the full complexities of modern warfare.” That said, I have played many a wargame that capture aspects of the complexity in modern warfare. To capture the full complexities requires that one game often and repeatedly using a wide variety of systems. God bless the Advanced Squad Leader players of the world—but you need to get out more often!

Learning from the Laboratory also emphasizes the ultimate PLA goal of wargaming:

Ultimately, the PLA’s objective is not only to prepare but also to anticipate and orient its efforts toward achieving an initiative in future warfare. “The PLA must broaden its strategic approaches to catch up, surpass and accelerate the transition from passively adapting to war to actively designing how a war is fought,” as CMC Vice Chairman General Xu Qiliang has declared.

Learning from the Laboratory, p. 29

Using wargames to get ahead on future warfare is an often stated goal in both defense and business but we rarely hear about any successes beyond the World War II examples from the United States. Indeed, we often hear about the failures like Millennium Challenge 2002. The apparent fact that the PLA wants to go beyond adapting to war to “designing” how it is fought is a not-so-subtle hint to the U.S. and our allies and partners that our own investment in wargames, especially professional supported by commercial, needs to increase.  This is the first recommendation founding Learning from the Laboratory:

Steady improvements in PLA wargaming could challenge and should provoke innovations and continued improvements within the US military and defense wargaming community.

— Experts have raised concerns over the past decade about gaps in US wargaming that need to be addressed. The Office of the Secretary of Defense should continue to assess US wargaming activities within the defense establishment and national security community as well as in academia and among hobbyists. Such a review could evaluate the state of “red teaming” and other adversarial training and research methods in the US military. Although elements of the US military have established their own programs and practices for red teaming, there appears to be no standard curriculum or formalized compilation of best practices. These programs should be regularly updated by sustained engagement with subject matter experts on potential adversaries.

— The US Department of Defense should ensure greater access to computerized wargaming platforms. US military educational institutions should consider introducing wargaming at earlier stages in education and enhancing PME programming across multiple levels.

Learning from the Laboratory, p. 30

There is a great quote in Learning from the Laboratory that all professional and hobby wargamers should pay attention to. “The idea that “third-rate militaries imitate war, second-rate militaries deal with war, and a first-class military designs war,” is frequently referenced in PLA commentary” (p. 29).

Just what sort of hobby—or even professional—wargame player or designer do YOU want to be?


Feature image – PLA Joint Battle Command Post courtesy of The Drive


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  1. I wonder if this is a reference to the stories of how Mark Herman was engaged to use his commercially available Gulf Strike game in the early days of Operation DESERT STORM to wargame the rapidly evolving situation?
  2. (ed note: the full backstory on this one is it’s own mini-series length made-for-TV-movie)

One thought on “Made in China Wargaming?

  1. Thanks for the shout-out!

    “Just what sort of hobby—or even professional—wargame player or designer do YOU want to be?”

    I don’t think I have decided yet; I just bumble around doing the things that interest me and that I would like to see in the world.
    If anyone else picks up on that, it’s fine (it’s also why I can’t even give some of my stuff away!).
    I was always interested in the areas where political considerations and the military cross.
    I think I first realized this early on in my wargaming career, after rolling to hit with a Bofors 40mm for the 17th time in Avalon Hill’s Tobruk.. why was that Bofors there in the first place?

    I really have my doubts about AI in wargames, computer or tabletop.
    Even when games do not degenerate into gamer-mode “find the flaw in the AI programming and exploit it” (something that has been documented by Anders Frank (https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CzG2uacAAAAJ&hl=da) and Johan Elg in Sweden), that same AI has been programmed by a specific person or team thinking in a specific way.
    I think if it is possible to have a human in the driver’s seat you should have one.

    As for red teaming, three weeks ago the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies at CGSC Leavenworth was officially defunded, so the $2.5 M spent on this near unique resource could be spent on — oh, I don’t know, drawings for a feed tray for something that won’t be fielded ever.

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